John McLaughlin on the Mystery of Creativity, Inspiration, & Music

Alan Bryson By

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I think mathematicians, scientists, astronomers, astrophysicists, artists, painters, and musicians need to profoundly love what we do. Then in a way, the love makes a connection to that realm where all these idea have always existed and always will exist. I know it sounds like science fiction, but I'm absolutely convinced of this. When I'm truly inspired, then I get access to this realm. How logical is inspiration, how can you classify inspiration in a logical manner? It's impossible, there's no logic to it, it just is what it is. —John McLaughlin
Improvised music within a sophisticated framework is one if the primary hallmarks of jazz. World class improvisation requires split second reactions, mental agility, dexterity, and the emotive soul of an artist. As a testament to his age defying vitality, on January 29, 2018 at the age of 76, John McLaughlin won a Grammy® Award for the Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 60th Annual Grammy® Awards. This was his pitch perfect acceptance:

"Winning a Grammy is a wonderful experience, but to win it for improvisation is the jewel in the crown! Thank you!"

It was his close association with Miles Davis over the years that brought him fame in jazz circles. It was also Miles Davis who eventually nudged him into forming his own band and launching a solo career. The resulting fusion band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, turned him into a guitar legend in jazz and rock.

While this was going on, he also delved deeply into Indian music. Later he formed the group Shakti with some of the finest musicians in India, a group which fused jazz with Indian classical music. His acoustic guitar tours with The Guitar Trio further cemented his reputation as a guitarist. He's been a remarkably prolific artist. Even if he had never released an album on his own, his guest appearances alone would have been enough to constitute a remarkable career.

It's been my privilege to interview this living legend on three separate occasions, and this interview is my personal favorite. This was the first audio interview ever to be featured here on the front page, where it remained for two weeks. It did quite well, but it has always gnawed at my conscience that I didn't publish his powerful words for posterity.

This interview took place at the end of August 2015. He was at home getting a little R&R before embarking on a tour of Asia. For musicians of his stature, it is not uncommon for them to set aside a day or days for some press work. PR reps will schedule a series of interviews, and understandably this can be tedious and monotonousness for the artist ---although people at this level are seasoned professionals, generally this isn't a recipe for a great interview.

When he answered the telephone he said he had just finished a lengthy interview which dug deeply into his musical history—I had a sinking feeling, expecting that he would be tired and eager to get the interview behind him. As you'll read in the interview, it turned out that there was some uncanny synchronicity at work. Here's the first example. Thankfully I had already decided to use the opportunity to explore the magic of music and creativity, and ask about some of the insights he has gleaned during his long and rich musical journey. It turned out to be a serendipitous decision that pushed the right buttons. Unbeknownst to me, the title of his album Black Light essentially came about as he pondered such questions, and as a result he was energized and highly engaged throughout our conversation.

The next example, as you'll read in the interview, was the decision to ask him about Dr. Oliver Sacks' book on music and the brain—he had an autographed copy of the book. Moreover, we spoke on a Friday and on Sunday I was stunned to see Oliver Sacks' obituary the New York Times. Finally, during the interview I quoted professor Alan Watts, and John revealed that he had listened to one of his lectures earlier that day on his iPhone.

So that's the back story, I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

All About Jazz: First of all congratulations, I saw on Amazon that even though Black Light hasn't been officially released yet, you're doing great, it's number one in the Jazz Fusion category.

John McLaughlin: Yeah this is far out! (Laughs) It surprised everybody, believe me.

AAJ: I have to apologize for not having a fantastic musical vocabulary, but simply as a layperson, what struck me as I listened to Black Light is the ingenious rhythmic foundation.

JM Well you know in jazz, whether it's Indian music like Shakti or three guitars, the rhythmical aspect of it is so important. Because it's the rhythm that connects us all together. We are all connected together, this is my personal conviction, my personal experience in a way. We're all connected, and the great thing about rhythm is that it physically brings us together.

A long time ago, going back through the early '70s when I first went to India, I became aware of the expression "God Rhythm." When the great drummers play and they get truly inspired, it's what they call the "God Rhythm."

When you hear the "God Rhythm" it's joyful, it's full of joy, and sensuality in a way, and humor—it's filled with everything rich.

So the rhythmical aspect is so important in all my recordings. We're a quartet, and two of the musicians are drummers, and one of them (Gary Husband) also plays keyboards. Depending on the tune, sometimes it's one drummer and one percussionist. So the fact that we have two drummers in the band, that gives you an indication of how important rhythm is to me Alan.

AAJ: It seems like some of the songs have a slow natural beat to them, but Ranjit Barot and Gary Husband play very fast within that framework, so it creates a kind of tension, because it is a slow beat, but they're playing really fast at the same time. It's like doing two things at once, and you seem to be tapping into the tension, and I think that makes for a very powerful approach.

JM Well you're actually very observant because on a lot of the pieces I set up a slow rhythm for one of the drummers, and I had the other drummer play either a third or a double on top of that. So in effect you have two different waves, the long slow wave underneath, like the ocean, and I really like the effect it has on me as a player. It's very stimulating because you have this wonderful—I don't know how to explain it—this long slow rhythm that's solid yet fluid and supports everything, and then you have this bubbling rhythm on top that's joyful. So you have this freedom to move between slow and middle tempo, and that's very liberating for me as a player.

I'm very impressed you noticed that, because most people simply think there's good drumming going on, which it is, because Ranjit and Gary are really amazing, and of course you must have heard Ranjit singing Konokkol.

AAJ: Right, right.

JM I'm really happy to get that in, because one of the tunes "Panditji" is an homage to Ravi Shankar. I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a series student by Panditji. I was in New York at that time, and when he would come to New York he would call me and I would go over to his hotel. And one day he said, "John, I'm going to teach you South Indian Konokkol, even though I'm a North Indian musician. What a blessing, and what an impact he had on me, as a human being, and as a musician.

This South Indian theory of Konokkol was really a revolution for me, you can communicate rhythm to each other—there's nothing like hearing someone like Ranjit, who is masterful at Konokkol, singing rhythm.

I'm very happy I was able to integrate that into this recording. We've been doing it for a while now on stage. The Konokkol and Gary's rhythm, they do it on the record actually, where Ranjit is singing some rhythmic compositions, and Gary listens to it and plays the same rhythm on the drums. There's wonderful communication between the two of them. I'm really thrilled that we were able to integrate this aspect of music into the album.

AAJ: John that really comes through, and I thought to myself you guys give fusion a new meaning. The group is so organically bound to each other, it's like a fusion of the musical minds. It really comes through.

JM Oh I'm really happy that you feel that Alan, because we fell it. When I say this is maybe the greatest band I've ever had, I'm not belittling other bands like Shakti or Mahavishnu Orchestra. I mean the first Mahavishnu Orchestra existed for two years. This particular formation with Ranjit, Etienne, and Gary, we've been together for over three years (now 5 and a half.) So when we get together we're just thrilled. Something happens, it's joyful to play together, and this gets into the music. So the music has got a kind of joyous feeling, and it's so marvelous for me to feel that as a player.

Of course, then to hear it after we've recorded it! Music is about the celebration of life, and the realization that we are all connected, we've been connected, and we can't help but be connected forever, even though we might not be aware of it. What music does, it reminds me in no uncertain terms, just how deeply connected we all are. It's marvelous, this is the power of music for me.

It becomes profoundly spiritual at the same time because these guys aren't just great players, they are also human beings who are participating with that viewpoint. It's not about being religious, I don't mean to bring religion into this, we're talking about the great spirit we're connected to. With this band, on a good night, on a good recording, I feel this sense of wonder for everything and everybody.

AAJ: It's fascinating that you said that, because there's a couple of questions that relate to that which I wanted to ask you. One is maybe a bit of a metaphysical question, but I notice as someone in the audience when the musicians really connect on stage, it seems like you can also feel the energy of the audience, like we're all connected in this experience too. It's like you can feel what is going on around you, maybe it's just my imagination, but it feels that way. So I wondered if you pick up on that when you are on stage?

JM When I go to a concert and the musicians come on stage, what I want them to do is to sweep me away into their world, to their life story, to their affections, to their joys and sorrows, so that I'm lost in their music. This is everything. If they can do that, that constitutes a great concert for me. It means the music is that good, not just that, but the complicity they have together, the love, affection, and admiration they have for each other, the ability to stimulate each other, to go beyond the normal mind and to to places they've never been before. I know that sounds like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but it's true. (We both laugh)

So about the audience, I'm part of the audience just like everybody else when I got to a concert, and I'm sure they are all like me. They want to be caught by the music and transported out of themselves and into the musicians' world and into the musicians' music. They find themselves in a greater sense of the word. That's all I ever want when I go to a concert, that I lose myself in their music, and I'm sure most of the audience are looking for the same thing.

Why do we go to a concert, why do we want to see live music? We want that wonderful sense that we all belong together. Music has the power and the beauty to transport us out of our regular little world, and away into the music itself. The whole point of music, of playing, is to find a way to transcend ourselves, our mundane little "world" self, and find a big beautiful world that lies inside all of us. Music, if we're having a good night, you never know Alan, sometimes you have bad nights, you're fighting your own ignorance, your own instrument, but that itself is good. The fight is good. You're not fighting anyone, you're fighting your own ignorance. But then there are nights when we musicians become free, liberated, we're flying in the music. And the audience, they start flying with us, because they're in the music. I know because it happens to me, when the band is flying on stage, I'm flying with them.
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